August 29th, 2008
08:46 AM ET

Putin Unplugged

In an exclusive CNN interview with CNN's Matthew Chance, Russian PM Vladimir Putin claims a U.S. role in the Georgia conflict.
In an exclusive CNN interview with CNN's Matthew Chance, Russian PM Vladimir Putin claims a U.S. role in the Georgia conflict.

Matthew Chance
CNN Senior International Correspondent, Moscow

Something strange and unexpected is happening in Russia. In the aftermath of the war in across the border in Georgia, I am suddenly being granted access to the country’s leadership. Remember, this is nation where Western journalists are barely given the time of day by the Kremlin. That is until now.

The call to interview Russian president Dmitry Medvedev came on Tuesday afternoon, out of the blue (although we of course have long standing requests in for a meeting). By Wednesday morning, we were on a two hour flight from Moscow to the Black Sea city of Sochi, with an appointment to have a sit down, one-on-one, interview. We have never interviewed Medvedev since he was elected in March, so we jumped at the chance.

We were corralled into the Sochi press centre, told we had 4 hours to setup our gear, and would be granted 7 minutes of the president’s time. As I struggled to decide which questions I should ask in such a short window, Medvedev appeared on Russian state television, somberly announcing his unexpected decision to recognize as independent states the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – obscure territories which swept to prominence earlier this month when Russian and Georgia went to war over them.

Minutes later, Medvedev was sitting in front of me, explaining why he had recognized them in the face of international, in particular American, opposition.

Ok, good days work. But there was more: the phone rang and on the end of the line was Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press flak. The main man, Prime Minister Putin, wanted to give us an exclusive. A full length, sit down interview.

I should emphasize at this point how big this is for us. Vladimir Putin has virtually single-handedly transformed Russia into a powerful, confident, maybe even aggressive state. He is a former KGB spy, and the former Russian president who eased his protégé and hand-picked successor into the Kremlin job. He denies it, but word is he, not Medvedev, still calls the shots in Russia.

And what’s more, he rarely gives interviews. Very rarely. CNN hasn’t spoken to him for more than 7 years!!! To get him now, at a time like this, when Russia is so priominent in the minds of Americans and the world, was incredible, fascinating.

And Putin doesn’t disappoint. The guy is short, stocky, a KGB trained judo black belt with a cold stare, and his critics would say, more than a little blood on his hands. He made Russia’s ruthless crackdown on Chechen separatists into an almost personal vendetta.

He doesn’t care for the US much at the moment, either. One of the first things he told me is that he blames Washington for the war in Georgia – for actually orchestrating it to help a particular candidate in the presidential contest. He wouldn’t say which one, but the Kremlin has been increasingly shifty about John McCain and what they see as his anti-Russian rants.

There was more, too – the stunning accusation that Americans helped Georgian forces fight the Russians this month! Apparently, some Russian soldiers found a US passport after wiping out some Georgian special forces unit in South Ossetia. What was he doing there? The white house insists Putin is talking rubbish.

But the next revelation is definitely true. As the world debates the possibility of economic sanctions on Russia, Russia has announced what amount to a few of its own on America: Putin says 19 US poultry exports have been found to be in breach of Russian health and safety standards and have been banned. Another 29 are on a watch list. No big deal, I suppose, but not great news in such an economic downturn. Putin said it had nothing to do with the diplomatic tensions, but I’m not sure anyone entirely believes him!

Anyway, point is, things have changed, and here’s why from a source who knows: Putin was in Beijing watching the opening ceremony when the war in Georgia erupted. He was constantly watching CNN to see how the conflict was being reported, and he didn’t like it. He hated it. He hated seeing Mikheil Saakashvili appealing for Western support, he hated that there was no one on TV putting across the Russian version of events.

Why was there no one? Because there is no access in Russia, we were not allowed to go to the Russian side of the conflict zone. No Russian officials were available to talk to us, as usual. Georgia played the media game, Russia did not.

A decision was taken then to change tack, to engage with the Western media, to aggressively argue Russia’s side. The Kremlin, which constantly complains of a bad press, could have learned this lesson years ago. But hopefully they see the value of us now. Doesn’t mean we agree with them, or that appearing on CNN will convert the West to Russia’s line. But at least they are in the debate now, and that can’t be bad for Russia.

Filed under: Global 360° • Matthew Chance • TV • Vladimir Putin
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Sam Rozenfeld

    What would be great is if Russian leadership would allow access to press not only at the time of crisis. They can clearly benefit from having their point of view conveyed via Western Media.

    August 30, 2008 at 9:12 am |
  2. Igor, Canberra

    Indeed it is a shame that Russians did not pay more attention to how the events are covered in the US. It was a wonderful interview, Mattew – perhaps, after your report, the Russians will review their approach… And perhaps look into some other problems with reports about them – eg. the full transcript of your interview with Putin in English appeared on CNN site some two days after (a Russian version (in Russian only) was available from RIAN website almost immediately). Before today, on CNN website there was a “summary” which completely distorted Putins’s words and more importantly – his political “position” towards the US. And a similarly “imprecise” short video “summary” then was shown on CNN News (in Australia and I presume worldwide) & was also offered on CNN website. Australian ABC Radio even ran a program with Michael Rowland who was “translating” Putin’s words from your interview into something which indeed sounded as “accusations” and a direct challenge to the US, to say the least– if Putin were to actually say that. He did not, though, and it brings us to the question of responsibility of the media – especially at times when it is all too easy to create a new nuclear stand-off, like it was in 1962 and at times when news reports are distributed around the globe with frightening speed – whether these reports are unbiased versions of the events or a product of imagination of some. It is a pity that Russians still do not realize the importance of the media and the direct impact it has on, say, an “average” American. Perhaps, a heavily “Georgionized” bias of the US media in covering of the recent events, which completely ignored Russian or even Osetian views, is also partly to blame for the current tensions in the US-Russia relations.

    August 30, 2008 at 6:10 am |
  3. Gary Chandler in Canada

    Couldn't go to Russia? So WHAT!
    From a little town in Canada, with Wikipedia, Google, and news forums, I knew of the criminal, surprise, American backed, night time attack on Ossetia by Georgia's Sackofshilts.
    Russia has asked America to choose sides Georgia or them in this conflict and you promptly buried your head in the sand, with stories of what color Hillary's pant suit is and such. Us or them<<< those are fighting words folks, and Russia HAS nuclear weapons, and America is on the wrong side of right, AGAIN.
    Choosing Georgia over Ossetia would be akin to choosing China over Tibet.
    Putin is NOT part of the American public, who can be lied to and misinformed so easily by the likes of McCain and Bush.
    If YOU think killing blue beret peace keepers and innocent civilians in surprise invasion is not a war crime, then side with Mccain's, 'good friend' Sackofshiltes.
    (((Who gets to keep all those American tanks the Georgians abandoned in Ossetia???)))
    CALL RUSSIA"S BLUFF and agree with independence for Ossetia.
    At least 'investigate' the Georgian attack, and Russia baited them is tooooo LAFFABLE and excuse. OF COURSE Russia has built up troops in THEIR territories along THEIR borders. What would America do if the Russian were putting missiles in Cuba and Mexico???

    August 29, 2008 at 11:45 am |
  4. Heather

    Wow! Putin has a really really active imagination. Doesn't he have access to the internet or to cable tv of some kind? I just can't believe that in the modern technological times we live in that Putin thinks these things. It's amazing and strange. You did a great job.

    August 29, 2008 at 11:43 am |
  5. Jolene

    You are right, this is very unexpected. Congrats on the interviews. It should be very interesting to hear what the Russian leadership has to say and what proof they have that the U.S. instigated the conflict. Thanks for keeping us informed. Stay safe.

    Jolene, St. Joseph, MI

    August 29, 2008 at 10:50 am |
  6. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    America's enemy list is not getting any smaller, it just keeps growing and unless we have a president who is willing to use diplomacy we can expect more of the same. John McCain is not the solution to the problem, he is part of the problem that he and the Bush administration created. Putin was at the Olympics sitting next to Bush and John McCain should have never jumped into this controversy using such threats againts Russia before Bush or Condi spoke. We can't have McCain going around threatening and bullying the world and adding more enemies to the list. McCain is dangerous and his fellow Senators know his temperment is dangerous.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:37 am |
  7. Annie Kate

    If they want to talk to us – press and hopefully diplomats – that has to be better than the old way of trying to guess what the other side was doing and why. I hope the next President will use diplomacy as his first choice and be able to cement a solid relationship of friendship with the Russians. Like that old saying – keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. I just hope that in the end Russia will be our friend and not our enemy.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    August 29, 2008 at 9:12 am |
  8. Martina Ilstad Germany

    Hey Matthew
    I watched you journalistred from gerorgia in this war time.you did it in a verry fair way.telling the facts,and let poeple marking their own minds.
    so mayby thats why russain p.putin give you this big chance to talk with him.so i belive you are a verry good worker for the peace in this area.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:03 am |
  9. KJ

    I do not believe a thing that Russia has to say! If anything I would say maybe Putin is trying to push for a certain President that would be easier for him to control. One that might be easier for him (Russia) to push around.

    Russia better watch out with using the press, as it might back fire on what they were wishing to accomplish.

    However, GREAT JOB on getting the interview! I am glad to have some kind of commuication with Putin and Russia- as long as there is communication there is hope for a peaceful future.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:00 am |
  10. Cindy

    The only reason that the media is being allowed access to any Russian figure is because they want to spread their ridiculous rhetoric to try and take the blame off of them for invading Georgia. That is it pure and simple.


    August 29, 2008 at 8:53 am |